James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

Julie Phillips




Trade Paperback

560 Pages



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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle AwardWinner of the Locus AwardFinalist for the Hugo AwardShortlisted for the British Fantasy Society AwardA New York Times Book Review Notable Book of of the YearA Washington Post Best Book of the YearA Times Literary Supplement Best Book of the YearOne of Booklist's Top 10 Women's History BooksOne of Publishers Weekly's 100 Best Books of the YearAn American Library Association Notable Book for AdultsRecipient of a Special Recognition Award by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Jury James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a series of hard-edged, provocative stories. He redefined the genre with such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Women Men Don't See. For nearly ten years he wrote and carried on intimate correspondences with other writers—Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin, though none of them knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: "he" was actually a sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon. A feminist, she took a male name as a joke—and found the voice to write her stories.
Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers, Julie Phillips has penned a biography of a profoundly original writer and a woman far ahead of her time.


Praise for James Tiptree, Jr.

"If it is getting more and more difficult to tell scholarly biographies from mass-market ones, there nevertheless remain examples that hold great promise for literary biography. Take Julie Phillips's James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which came out last year from St. Martin's. Not only has Phillips, a journalist, offered vigorous citations for her sources, including specific dates for letters, but she has chosen a subject where it is almost inconceivable to consider the writer apart from the writings . . . Phillips has carefully sifted through the public record,, as well as gone out of her way to interview many of the people who talked with Tiptree, and the magic combo clarifies any quibbles scholars and loved ones might have. Thus we have accountability and transparency . . . We get a strong sense of Sheldon's feminism through historical and anecdotal evidence. Phillips presents the political climate of 1947 and Tiptree's letters to friends about the 'woman problem.' If Phillips speculates, she doesn't often let matters linger there. She follows up. In presenting details about Sheldon's sexuality, we are informed that 'she couldn’t have an orgasm through intercourse' and given multiple sources (for example, Tiptree's journal and an unfinished memoir) discussing her sexual wants. In light of her impersonation of a man throughout her writing career, that is a valid line of inquiry. Phillip's book represents the literary biography done right."—Edward Champion, The Chronicle of Higher Education
"In Julie Phillips's engrossing and endlessly revelatory biography, the woman behind the alias is at last allowed to step into the spotlight, emerging as neither a malicious prankster nor a defiant contrarian, but simply as a writer for whom science fiction proved to be the ideal genre to tell her own story . . . [Phillips's] writing achieves its own kind of narrative tension, a spell that obliges even the readers already clued in to Tiptree's secret to turn the book's pages with increasing suspense as they wait for its real-life inhabitants to catch up with them . . . [a] thoughtful and meticulous biography provides both the expert and the novice with a Rosetta stone to the Tiptree catalog — an opportunity to extract from these stories the many layers of personal resonance they once held only for Sheldon herself. And it gives a new generation of readers the chance to prove to Sheldon, who in her final years wrote that she was “trying to become nothing,” just how supremely wrong she was."—Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times Book Review
"An incredible life, done elegant justice. Tiptree-Sheldon is one of the century's astonishing figures, somewhere between Katharine Hepburn, Philip K. Dick, and Billy Tipton."—Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of The Fortress of Solitude
"An exemplary biography of a fascinating life—the brilliantly elusive woman who, as a writer, called herself James Tiptree, Jr. Never oversimplifying, never over-interpreting, Julie Phillips illuminates a formidably complex psyche wihout invading it."—Ursula K. Le Guin, Hugo- and National Book Award-winning author of The Dispossessed
"The meticulous, emotionally intelligent biography of an extraordinary writer. Alice Sheldon is easily the most intriguing figure in late 20th-century American science fiction. Julie Phillips has given 'Tiptree' the book she deserves."—William Gibson, New York Times bestselling author of Pattern Recognition
"A fascinating subject, an engrossing read. Philips provides sharp, insightful portraits of the real Alice Sheldon, the fictional James Tiptree, Jr., and the complicated partnership of their work and lives. This is a biography written with equal parts sympathy, respect, research, and honesty. And a real page-turner, too."—Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"In this deeply thoughtful, rivetingly readable biography of James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips traces the life and work of a woman whose self-presentation in her writing made her seem so much 'like a man' that she confounded our culture's myths of gender and genre, convincing even the most sophisticated readers that 'Tiptree'—in 'real' life a woman named Allie Sheldon—was and had to be 'really' a man. This is a fascinating investigation of a fantastic literary career."—Sandra Gilbert, distinguished scholar and editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women
"[James Tiptree, Jr.] documents not only an extraordinary life but all the fault lines of what it meant to be female in the twentieth century. I think this may be the rare case when a biography actually exceeds what I expect from a novel . . . I hope everyone reads this book."—Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out Of Carolina
"It is a first-rate biography, important and rewarding to everyone interested in science fiction or Tiptree's work or women's writing or Alli herself. It's a solid, scholarly job, and shows great sensitivity to Tiptree's life and work."—Joanna Russ, author of The Female Man
"Finely detailed biography of a woman whose ascension as a cult figure writing as a man was the most visible facet of her fascinating and, in the end, tragic life. Journalist Phillips's superb depiction of Alice B. Sheldon (1915-87) as the woman behind the persona of science-fiction writer James Tiptree is an extraordinary achievement. A Chicago debutante who survived a quickie society marriage and divorce, 'Alli' Bradley enlisted in the army and became a WWII intelligence officer. After the war, she married fellow veteran Huntingdon Sheldon, and they both joined the fledgling CIA. She also dabbled in graphic art and eventually earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. After more than a decade of publishing as 'Tiptree,' Sheldon’s secret was revealed. Her life ended in a double suicide with her ailing husband. Apart from the basic facts of her life, Sheldon's innermost thoughts were revealed to the world through her stories and the voluminous correspondence 'he' exchanged with close friends, who, like Tiptree's readers, had no idea that it was a woman speaking to them. Most, Phillips says, saw him as a manly man's writer, dealing with issues of sex and death—her writing was sometimes compared to Hemingway's—but one with an unusual talent for creating sympathetic female characters. Phillips is more than adept at plumbing Sheldon's writing to expose her anger at the role gender plays in sex, creativity and power. A compelling portrait of a conflicted feminist."—Kirkus Reviews
"Phillips' long-overdue biography probes the mystery behind Sheldon's clandestine lifestyle while mapping out the many adventurous turns in her continuously reinvented identity as she changed roles from graphic artist and CIA agent to psychologist and award-winning author. Beginning with Sheldon's childhood spent tagging along to Africa with her mother, noted travel writer Mary Bradley, Phillips follows 'Alli' from her formative years in a Swiss girls' school to her years working in a Pentagon subbasement to, finally, her almost whimsical turn as a sf author and eventual, premeditated suicide with her husband. Phillips draws on extensive interviews with surviving relatives and literary colleagues as well as Alli's revealing letters to write a compelling, sympathetic portrait of one of speculative fiction's most gifted and fascinating figures."—Booklist (starred review)
"Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (1915–1987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing mélange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldon’s sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called 'endless makeshift' attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's 'haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction' at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Who Is Tiptree, What Is He?

No one [...] has, to my knowledge, ever met Tiptree, ever seen him, ever talked with him on the phone. No one knows where he lives, what he looks like, what he does for a living. [...] He volunteers no information about his personal life, and politely refuses to answer questions about it. [...] Most SF people [...] are wild to know who Tiptree "really" is.
---Gardner Dozois, 1976

In 1921 in the Belgian Congo, a six-year-old girl from Chicago with a pith helmet on her blond curls walks at the head of a line of heavily laden native porte
Read the full excerpt


  • Julie Phillips

  • Julie Phillips is a journalist who has written on film, books, feminism, and cultural politics. James Tiptree, Jr. is her first book. She lives in Amsterdam, Holland.
  • Julie Phillips